Gene Pinpoints Heritage, Causes Concern

BRCA1 Prompts Some Difficult Questions for a Hispanic Town

By Elie Dolgin

Published February 21, 2012, issue of February 24, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA
By Jeff Wheelwright
W.W. Norton and Company, 260 pages, $26.95

A diagnosis of breast cancer presents a lot of questions. Should you start with chemotherapy, or opt for surgery right away? Do you remove the tumor alone, or the entire breast? What about prophylactic surgery to remove the other healthy breast before the next tumor strikes?

Such questions can be daunting for any woman in the face of a life-threatening illness. But what if the questions raised by such a tumor go beyond how to control the disease? What if the cancer also fundamentally challenges the notions of your race, religion and personal identity?

w.w. norton and co.

Such was the case for a small group of Catholic Hispanos living in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. In addition to coming to grips with a hereditary form of breast cancer plaguing their community, this population of Spanish and Native American descent had to deal with their DNA, and a peculiar mutation that pointed unexpectedly to an ancient Jewish heritage.

That genetic defect goes by the name BRCA1.185delAG, so-called because of a deletion (del) of the chemicals adenine (A) and guanine (G) at site 185 of the DNA encoding the BRCA1 gene. It’s known, with dread, as the BRCA (pronounced “bracka”) mutation, and a woman with it has a greater than 50% chance of developing breast or ovarian cancer over her lifetime.

The 185delAG mutation arose some two millennia ago among the Hebrew tribes living in the Middle East and spread through their gene pool, rising in frequency. Currently there are two working hypotheses for this higher prevalence: first, that it rose in frequency by chance alone, because of the Jews’ small gene pool; second, natural selection caused the gene to rise. A recent study, published in the journal Biology Letters, suggests that having the mutant BRCA mutation may have boosted fertility in the days before birth control and that the evolutionary fitness of the gene was largely unaffected by its fatal consequences in later life. Whichever is the case, the mutation now affects about one in 100 people of Ashkenazi descent and, intriguingly, some isolated non-Jewish populations of Spanish descent, too.

About a decade ago, scientists began noticing the deletion of those two letters of DNA in several non-Jewish communities, including a Spanish Gypsy population, a Chilean family and Hispanic groups living in the Los Angeles area. All these people identified as Spanish or Latin American and had no knowledge of any Jewish ancestry. But DNA revealed what culture and history had lost.

Scientists typically refer to 185delAG as an “Ashkenazi” mutation, thanks to the gene’s most prominent carrier population today. But considering that Iraqi and Moroccan Jews carry the mutation at noticeable frequencies, chances are that the Sephardim of the Iberian Peninsula harbored the genetic red flag, as well.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.